Thursday, February 21, 2008

REVIEW: Coffee Exchange- **** / $$

Coffee Exchange is like a case study in how to do a cafe correctly. Laser-like in its focus, and immensely popular, this is one of Rhode Island's best cafes. It's also one of Rhode Island's busiest. Even on slow nights, Tuesday or Wednesday, Coffee Exchange is bumping, with every table, except my own, hosting two more more people. They accommodate the slavering hordes as best they can with some of the best hours this side of 24/7, open at 6:30am and closed at 11:00pm. Thus, they grab every coffee rush the day has to hold. They don't offer the full morning routine, but if you're nearby and you don't get your coffee here, well, you're pretty dumb.

As Starbucks showed, profits can be made by moving away from your core product to supporting items, like egg sandwiches, but the loss of focus transforms you into something different. This isn't necessarily negative, but a loss of association with a single product, in this case coffee-related drinks, means you are no longer a cafe. You are no longer just about the coffee. Coffee Exchange is just about the coffee.

Obviously, Coffee Exchange has the usual offerings that go well with coffee, such as some éclairs, biscotti, and cookies, but that's it. 95% of the floor space is dedicated to coffee. Beans, machines, and of course the drinks all dominate the atmosphere, the signs, the menu, and the smells. Just being in Coffee Exchange is a sensory experience that outclasses most cafes. The only objects not related to coffee are the walls full of local happenings which remind you of how painfully bohemian this place is. I don't mean to deride its nature as Bohemia, because Bohemia is nice. Coffee exchange is a hangout for refugees from RISD, Brown, Providence College, and nearby high schools. Clad in clothing purchased at Savers, or made at great cost to look like it was purchased at Savers, the students sit, sip their coffee, and suffer through the extreme pain of being so non-conformist and brilliant. Again, I'm making fun. But in places so far removed from CofEx, I laugh so that I do not weep. Here, I laugh because I know, that deep down, they're laughing, too. I would prefer those who live in the clouds over any Earthen salt. CofEx has a great crowd.

Coffee Exchange is a very warm, cozy environment. Very cozy if you consider the crowds. At times, the popularity easily outstretches the building's capacity. This is especially problematic during the winter, when the deck area becomes useless. A few people like to sit out in the cold, warmed only by there drink, but for the majority of folks, this isn't an option. Thus, table space is at a premium. The back of the cafe is dominated by a large counter and coffee display, with the roaster proudly visible through a doorway. A few small cases show off some pastries and whatnot, but the giant menu, wide variety of whole-bean coffee, roaster, and espresso machines make no illusions that this place isn't all about the coffee. You can buy the beans, every machine you need, and ask for advice.

Stepping up to the counter, you can order from a selection of over thirty beans, with a dozen or so single-origin varieties. I have to admit, I know it's cool to have the beans open for scooping, but I'd really prefer air-tight containers. One of the reasons coffee seems to be in a different league in places like Coffee Exchange is because the coffee makes the shortest trip possible between the roaster and your cup. Anything longer allows more and more oxidation to take place which has a noticeable effect on the character and quality of beams. This isn't a French-wine-snob kind of difference in taste, this is a major difference that anyone would notice. You want your beans as fresh as possible and keeping them in open-air containers is not fresh.

They have a wide variety of available drinks, and you can ask to have specific roasts used in any drink. They don't have the large list on display that Starbucks does, but the baristi are all skilled and can make anything you want. The tea selection is good, but I think they could do better. That's not to say it isn't more than acceptable, but it's very easy to offer an enormous variety. Yes, as I said, CofEx is all about the coffee, but if you're going to offer tea, offer tea. They also have chai available. Like, actual chai. Not Big Train, or some chai mix. It was good.

In coffee, though, they are almost peerless. I got the single best mocha I've ever had. The chocolate and espresso was in perfect balance, and the milk foam was thick, rich, and chocolaty. It wasn't very sweet, but that's what I liked about it. The chocolate and the espresso were allowed to bring out each other's flavor. I proceeded to have a latte which was as well done as could be. The espresso was flavorful, the milk and foam were both excellent and everything was in balance. The espresso was a well-rounded flavor; neither heavy nor light. Distinct notes of chocolate accentuated a very dark, earthy character. Absolutely no bitterness allowed the subtle sweetness of the espresso to really reveal itself. This... fullness of such freshly roasted coffee is what I talk about when extolling freshly roasted beans. Once you've had it on a regular basis, that's it. Old, stale, or poorly prepared coffee is bitter, or sour, or watery. These are things you notice.

As I mentioned, they have an array of sweets to munch on, but they take up a very small part of the floorspace. They're almost an after thought. I find that negative. On busy days, they run out quickly and they never seem to re-stock. What they do have is very good and goes perfectly with the coffee, but a larger selection would be really nice. As far as the menu goes, this is the only weakness, and puts CofEx solidly behind places that offer a wider array of goods, like Pastiche, or even Morning Routine haunts, like Jitters.

I know it sounds like I'm contradicting myself by praising then criticizing their coffee-focus, but half-hearted efforts in any way are negative. The business focus is excellent, as is the coffee. The atmosphere is everything a college hangout should be. A dining area filled with eclectic people being eclectic the best way one can be; over a drink you have a hard time pronouncing. Still, the lack of a compelling menu of food to support the coffee makes it hard to recommend Coffee Exchange as a place that you should go out of your way to visit. Especially with Pastiche also in Providence, where they offer a more well-rounded experience of coffee and dessert. Granted, they can't touch CofEx's variety of coffee and ability to make anything you want. Coffee Exchange is excellent, but not excellent enough for me to tell you to definitely make the trip instead of going to Updike's Newtowne, Caffe Bon Ami, or True Brew Cafe. If you fancy yourself a coffee gourmet, then this is a must visit, but if you just want a great cappuccino, there's probably a place nearby that will get the job done.

UPDATE 9/14/2008: I now know CofEx's dirty, little secret. They get their cakes and whatnot from Gregg's. DumDumDUMMMMM. Lowly Gregg's! No strange, esoteric woman who makes cakes in her pot-filled greenhouse. I wonder if the Bohemian elite would still feel as special if they knew they were eating simple Gregg's cakes.

Coffe Exchange: ****
Price range for two: $5-$9

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207 Wickenden St.
Providence, RI 02903

All Week 6:30am to 11:00pm

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